From dingy basements and the world of improvisation, through mixed tapes and glued fanzines, from hand to hand and by mouth to mouth, hardcore punk has penetrated all the world’s mainstream cultures with its web of informal networks. As an aggressive and faster form of punk, as an answer to the genre’s commercialization, this musical and social movement has been developing organically for 40 years. The roots lie on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: in UK and in the U.S. With such a variety of Do It Yourself principles, spontaneous exchanges and unwritten histories, there are no clearly drawn out paths nor strict definitions. However, some features can be attributed to the styles that emerged on different sides of the ocean. So, after the birth of British punk, generations came of age through American hardcore in Belgrade, in Serbia as a whole, and across the entire former Yugoslavia. The initial or strongest influences arrived during the time of the embargo, sanctions, and the shutdown of formal cultural exchange. Paradoxically, or quite the opposite – because, if a common denominator can be found in a movement that rejects the rules, it would be an act of rebellion or instability, standing up against oppression and the system in charge, and maybe, above all, self-organization, as limited as resources may be, of one’s own creations and the power of informal networking.
It can be said that hardcore punk was born on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean simultaneously: the most famous examples are the US bands Black Flag and Bad Brains and UK’s Discharge from the end of the 1970s. The Yugoslavian scene got on the bandwagon relatively quickly. As early as 1981, new hardcore punk bands were being formed in nearly all capitals throughout the socialist Yugoslavia. Up until the beginning of the war in the 1990s, the government was relatively lax about new bands and fanzines (a term coined from the words “fan” and “magazine”), one of the primary mediums for spreading the word about new bands, publications, tours, and concerts; all emerging from the D.I.Y. / Do It Yourself principles. In those days in Belgrade, concerts were held in local community centers, cultural centers, and youth centers, such as the Dadov Theater, the Božidar Adžija Hall, the community center III Bulevar, and others. Fanzines were printed, or more precisely, photocopied, and concerts were held for both local and foreign bands… Due to their geographic locations, more foreign concerts were held in Zagreb and Sarajevo than in Belgrade, and the choices were more mixed, but Belgrade did not lag very far behind. Up until the very beginning of the war, records, cassettes, and t-shirts were ordered by simply sending cash (dinars) in an envelope to worldwide punk and hardcore distributers.
With a decade of war and the worsening economic situation, the embargo, sanctions, and being closed off from the world. There were no concerts from foreign bands in Serbia and in Belgrade. The break in the official communication channels meant that it was harder and harder to come across new music. However, rather quickly, a parallel bootleg scene developed. With a stronghold on the stands in front of the Student Cultural Center (Studentski Kulturni Centar-SKC), a diverse array of dubbed and pirated cassettes brought the current music scene much closer to the Belgrade youth, not much later than in the rest of the world. Creative growth in the field of getting by and exchanging music took on a new form that was mostly based on personal contacts and networking. Although dominant in society, it was as if anti-American sentiment did not exist in the hardcore punk scene, at least not in the same form. The American scene was followed, and perhaps even more so than in the 1980s, thanks to commercialization and growth in the U.S. itself. Bands found their audience in Belgrade by way of TV shows as well, which could be caught by satellite, and with music shows on local channels with a broad thematic scope (Treći kanal, ART), and in some bigger music magazines that managed to make it to the Belgrade audience.
As a polar opposite of the economic situation and the lack of opportunities and possibilities in the war-torn and isolated 1990s, the Belgrade hardcore scene began to develop. Bands were formed, frequently with English names and lyrics that followed topics that were popular in American hardcore punk: D.I.Y., vegetarianism, straight edge, unity, friendship, equality, social engagement, PMA / positive mental attitude, solidarity, and others. Poster design, clothing styles, and the use of aesthetic as an important subcultural expression, the album covers of American bands, and fanzine imagery were all replicated locally. Even further, through hardcore punk music, other influences spread, including skateboard culture, Hare Krishna, machismo, animal rights, different life philosophies, and ways of living that had already realized their expansion on American soil.
Opening the boarders after the year 2000 characterized an important change with the arrival of foreign bands to Belgrade / Serbia (at first with the pioneering efforts of individual promoters), but also interpersonal connections and the gradual (re-)establishing the cultural community on the territory of what had become the non-existent Yugoslavia. New bands formed, more people attended concerts, and the Internet became used by the masses and brought about new forms of communication and exchange, which also brought about new opportunities to develop the scene. Creating the possibility for local bands to go on regional and European tours opened the door to new collaborations and domains. With a growth in opportunities and influence, the Belgrade hardcore punk scene developed in multiple smaller and different movements, which were gradually becoming independent. Unlike the first “formative” years in which the influence of American hardcore punk more or less copied into a local framework, after 2000, an authentic sound and approach to the already globally formed musical movement began to develop.
There is not a strong definition of hardcore punk. If we were to survey those who consider themselves listeners or followers of hardcore punk and to ask them for an explanation, we would get a handful of different, and very often opposing, answers: from descriptions of the sound itself, to the styles of clothing, all the way to some of the fundamental, inviolable principles. With the informal expansion of such a subcultural movement, there are countless ways of understanding and experiencing what it is and what it represents for each individual. It is likely that the majority would agree that a more aggressive form of punk is in question, which holds the rebellion and self-organization (D.I.Y.) in its essence. However, this leaves space for umpteen different styles, approaches, and interpretations. Maybe in this varied and undefined space lies the very freedom of action itself. As it is, hardcore punk presents support for and refuge to those longing for an approach and a way of thinking that differs from the dominant and established mindset. It offers the possibility not to conform, but rather, to create a better world, whether it mean freeing one’s own musical expression or sticking to one’s own system of values, even if it is only in the scale of small communities.
Belgrade hardcore does not have a written history. Every interpretation of key events, characteristics, and meaning, would be personal and subjective, and different from person to person. While some bands were key to others, and some events groundbreaking, to others they were totally irrelevant or even unknown. In music and in the movement that (for many) is based on rejecting the mainstream and dismantling authority, there are no pop charts, prestigious radio or TV stations, publishing houses or established criteria that would define what is and what is not significant or great; they are the subjective, individual personal perceptions and measures of influence of each participant. That said, this exploration presents an array of personal stories, clips of a movement, a time, and a spirit, shown through polyphony, a diversity of views, perceptions, and experiences. In this lies an array of unexpected details that unveil unforeseen paths of cultural exchange, influence, and interpersonal connections, as a secret world of connection and understanding developed in different culture environments.
Key features – independence, at the example of independent space:
Hardcore punk cannot be separated from independent spaces. Whether those are club basements for basement shows, residential locations for house shows, or in squats, independent concert spaces were a key prerequisite for the existence and development of this musical scene and movement. Playing in often inadequate spaces has a number of drawbacks, but some critical advantages as well: freedom from the “external” demands of clubs, cultural centers, and institutions (whether that be the financial aspect or the taste of the management); no minimal attendance quotas; no personnel needed to be engaged; easier logistics, and so on. From that arises self-organization, which grants freedom to the community itself, to the scene, to set its own conditions. In this case, technical aspects are generally in the background (the quality of the audio equipment, spaces being only essentially equipped to carry out concerts, and the musical skill and preparedness of the performers), but the priority is simply that a concert can be held. In this, a feeling of community and equality is created: that practically everybody has the possibility to get on stage and to actively participate, to organize a concert, to invite the bands that they would like to hear, for the scene to put forth collective effort towards itself, by the community, for the community.
Self-organization bridges the gap between the problem of existence and the inaccessibility of formal clubs, and brings a number of other advantages. Improvised spaces can only accommodate a smaller number of people, so bands can play for “full audiences” of only about 50 people–which further simplifies organization and removes unreachable capacities from the equation. In addition, all of the ticket sales goes directly into the hands of the organizers, where the common practice is for proceeds not to be used as profit, but rather, to cover expenses and to be returned into financing other needs for the scene. With this, the door is opened for traveling bands who mostly play for travel expenses, and tours became an indispensable element of the development of hardcore punk. The independence of the space directly fosters the independent scene, which entails the freedom of selecting bands and minimum expenses, and with that, more intense exchanges, either at the local or international level. From these exchanges, the scene grows.
In Europe, the situation is somewhat different from that of the U.S., as concert spaces whose doors are open for youth self-organization include a number of youth and cultural centers as well. In the socialist Yugoslavia, hardcore punk concerts were mostly held in such places. During the 1990s, independent spaces still did not exist and concerts were mostly held in public institutions–organized by hardcore punks, but while upholding the various conditions that institutions set (hall availability, financial requirements, technical requirements in the sense of finding and paying for a sound engineer, security, and so on). Therefore, Belgrade hardcore left its mark on venues like Dom Omladine (Bunker / St. James), KST, SKC, Akademija, Fest, Dadov, Božidar Adžija… The private club “Tren” in Banovo Brdo also stands out. With different practices than public institutions, in the 1990s “Tren” became a small refuge for hardcore punk concerts.
After the year 2000, a number of small, private spaces appeared which would open their doors to hardcore punk concerts and shows, whether they were cafes or clubs in the wider center of the city, cultural centers, or barges or boats on Belgrade’s rivers. However, the public institutions venues listed above, with their infrastructure and tradition, remained the primary choice for organizing concerts. At the end of the first and the beginning of the second decade of the 2000s in Belgrade the first functional squats finally appeared, as did clubs that were directly run by those in the community. Due to a number of factors, some local and some global, the development of the scene in that period is part of a new chapter that is outside of the scope of this analysis.
The pursuit of independent spaces in Belgrade, or rather, the lack of such spaces, marked the domain and development of the Belgrade hardcore punk scene. Analogies with the same trajectory can be found in the history of independent record labels, fanzines, radio shows… In fact, the question of the existence of independent mediums and places for exchanging influences is at the core of the developmental considerations of hardcore punk. While some independent mediums find success in self-organization to a greater or lesser extent, the space itself presents to be the most challenging aspect, and therefore the hardest to achieve, especially in the context of the urban politics and the spatial development of (transitional) Belgrade. For generations that grew up on hardcore punk from 1990-2012, freedom of action through free space remains an unfulfilled dream.
Presentation and Discussion
Taking part in the discussion:
Miloš Stošić, Ljubica Slavković, Igor Todorović Zgro (No Speed Limit, Novosadska punk verzija), Ana Miljanić, Boris Milić (Mob Law, Rejected, Zombie Animals), Nemanja Bošković (Out Of The Darkness zine), Aleksandra Sekulić (Distorzija fanzine); Marko Korać (Spiteful, Vitamin X, Heros & Zeros, Open Wounds, Singidunum records); Dragan Marković – Gale (Kerozin zine); Branislav Dimitrijević.
Miloš Stošić (1977): Stop It! (vocals / 1993-1994), Rejected (drums / 1994-1996), Unison (vocals / 1994 – 2012), Stonewall (vocals / 1995 – 1997), Mnjenje (vocals / 2012 – 2018).
Srđan Kuzmanović (1976): Unison, Standpoint, Lets Grow, Charlie Don’t Surf, Minimum, Šaht, Beogradski Produkt, Kurzschluss, CS-1, Meat Market, Stonewall, Hands in Ashes, All of Us, Blind Side, Youth Crew All Stars, 36 Daggers, Strive for More, Skymaster 4, Statico (mostly drums)
(Ljubica) Ljuba Slavković (1984): Lets Grow (guitar / 2001 – 2010), Chresus Jist (bass, vocals / 2013 – 2015), HA-KO bastards (record label / 2004 – 2013)